updated 5/10/2005 5:56:41 PM ET 2005-05-10T21:56:41

Banding together to undercut the international influence of the United States, South American and Arab leaders opened their first summit Tuesday on political and economic cooperation.

With 9,000 soldiers posted around the Brazilian capital and helicopters flying overhead, 15 heads of state and top officials from 34 South American, Middle Eastern and North African nations converged for the first Summit of South American-Arab Countries.

“We are facing a historic opportunity to build the foundation for a bridge of solid cooperation between South America and the Arab world,” Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said.

Pushing a policy goal he has pursued since becoming the first elected leftist leader of Latin America’s largest country, Silva urged the participants to fight for free-trade rules that help the developing world’s masses who live in misery, instead of benefiting only rich countries and multinational corporations.

Notably absent
But the summit lost some of its luster with the absence of some of the strongest voices in the Arab world, including the leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria. Even Lebanon’s president was a no-show.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa had been hoping more leaders would attend, but said the presence of seven of the 22 Arab heads of state was a positive “gauge of the importance of the conference.” Eight of the 12 South American leaders were participating.

Moussa denied speculation that the United States — which was refused permission to attend the summit as an observer — had pressured leaders to boycott the event, which was to issue a declaration at odds with U.S. policy from terrorism to Israel.

But he took pains in his speech to play down controversial elements of the declaration, saying the summit’s main point is to strengthen regional ties.

“This summit, in its idea, its initiative, is not directed against anyone,” he said.

Shifting the benefits of globalization
Silva, however, singled out for criticism agricultural subsidies that the United States and Europe give their farmers, saying they must be slashed to ensure that “poor countries receive the benefits of globalization.”

“We want to take concrete and lasting steps in the struggle for development and social justice,” Silva said.

Moussa said the two regions, which have a combined population of more than half a billion people, may lie far apart but share strong cultural links. About 10 million South Americans are of Arab descent.

“More than 600 million people are looking with hope to the summit of hope, the Brasilia summit,” he said.

The summit drew the biggest show of security in the Brazilian capital since Silva was sworn into office 2½ years ago.

Two Army tanks were parked in front of the convention center, and soldiers with automatic weapons patrolled in jeeps, trucks and on horseback.

Police confiscated four pistols from security guards protecting Iraqi President Jalal Talabani because they had not filed the proper paperwork to carry weapons.

Silva initiated the idea for the summit in 2003 with a visit to the Middle East, and the gathering comes at a time when Washington is pressuring Arab nations to relax their mostly authoritarian systems of government.

Declaration lashes out at occupation, sanctions
The leaders were expected to endorse a “Declaration of Brasilia” on Wednesday pledging to tighten political and economic links between the regions.

A draft of the declaration demands that Israel disband settlements in Palestinian territory, including “those in East Jerusalem,” and retreat to its borders before the 1967 Mideast war. It also lashes out at U.S. economic sanctions against Syria.

But Moussa, in an interview, denied the declaration was biased against Israel or the United States, its main ally.

“It’s not against Israel,” he said. “It’s certainly against the occupation by Israel.”

The document denounces terrorism, but asserts the right of people “to resist foreign occupation in accordance with the principles of international legality and in compliance with international humanitarian law.”

The clause was a clear reference to Israeli and American condemnation of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Simon Wiesenthal Center said “it leaves the door open for terrorists groups to interpret it as a support for their criminal activities.”

On the Mideast peace front, the draft supports international efforts, including the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan. And on Iraq, it stresses the need to respect the “unity, sovereignty and independence of Iraq and of not interfering in its internal affairs.”

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